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|This is part of a much larger whole. The larger whole has been tossed out though. The lack of a title (at one point it was just named after the character 'Dell') seemed to confuse some so I have given it a title. Let me know if it sucks.||
Captain Quine eyed the reserves he commanded at Selan's North Gate as they joked back and forth. His shoulder felt better and Goddess willing he would soon be back with the Xth. That pleasant thought was all that kept him from taking a whip to these toy soldiers to try and improve their attitude.
"Legionnaires," he yelled and then winced as the guards slouched to attention. "Today is market day gentlemen. You must at least look at the people passing through. I won't tell you again."
The guards eyed each other and then Quine. He groaned. "Don't watch me." Quine indicated the people bustling in and out of the gate on their morning business. "Watch them."
The guards scrambled to their posts on either side of the recently opened gate and began to glance at each person passing through. Quine bet himself they would lose focus again in less than ten minutes. He sighed and wandered partway up the road carefully examining the morning rush.
The crowd had begun to lessen when Quine noticed a carriage in the distance. He could not see a standard but knew it belonged to a noblewoman. "Damn! That's the last thing I need."
He jogged back to his post. "Shut the gate you fools, a procession is coming." Market morning too, someone wanted to attract attention.
The guards hustled to shut the gate and came to attention, five on either side of the road, crossbows across their shoulders. "Well done men," said Quine. "You might be mistaken for real soldiers."
The citizenry knew the ritual as well as he did and stood to the side of the road waiting for the gate to be reopened. Quine had a brief flash of irritation; the civilians responded as quickly as his guards did.
Quine then stood square in the middle of the road ready for Recognize or Challenge.
The crowd recognized the standard first and began to mutter. Quine began to worry when he saw what caused the excitement. The Guardian was bearing the device of the kidnapped princess. If he Challenged and someone could prove a right to bear the standard it could mean his head. If he Recognized and allowed an imposter through the gate it could also mean his head. He turned to examine the cavalcade for clues as to which choice to make.
The carriage was a fine one, filigreed and well sprung, but like many he had seen before. The honor guard was far from normal. Nomads. Not mercenaries, with a veneer of civilization, but savage men in leather armour and skins. Quine remembered the conscripts giggling at the gate moments earlier and wished once again that he had the Xth at his back.
He tried to examine the shield of the standard bearer. If some popinjay lordling was from a prestigious enough family he might have been granted the right to carry the princess's banner. Who knows? The carriage might hold a royal pet or something equally foolish. The shield revealed nothing. Even at a distance Quine could tell it had been covered with black cloth.
When the procession drew close enough for Quine to make out individuals, he began to worry even more. The standard bearer rode an enormous charger that highstepped and jerked on the reins. He wore not a fine cape over decorative show armour but a hooded cloak of untreated wool thrown back to reveal some of the finest South Kingdom steel Quine had seen; well used but well cared for. A longsword and a dented helmet hung with the shield on the saddle pommel. The man's head was shaved like a nomad's but the remaining hair was braided close to his skull in thin rows. This was no court fop, this was a warrior.
The standard bearer drew up in front of him and halted the cavalcade. He quickly scanned the guards then turned to face Quine. He was very young but Quine could read nothing in the sharp, gaunt features or blue eyes. Quine felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
Quine walked around to the right side of the charger. He was frightened; first time in years. The man on the horse said nothing, waiting for Challenge or Recognition. Quine realized the crowd had grown silent. He stalled for time.
"Please declare both your title and that of the carriage occupant?" Quine was relieved that his voice was both steady and respectful. The Guardian regarded Quine impassively for a moment then turned up to the standard. He then looked back down at Quine.
Quine remained silent for a moment before realizing he could stall no longer. He took a deep breath then spoke clearly and formally. "I, sir, recognize the standard and hereby Challenge your right to enter the city beneath it." Quine waited for the traditional response, a formal complaint against him on behalf of the carriage occupant.
The response was anything but traditional. Quine could not even swallow as he stared at the steppeknife held in front of his throat. The mysterious warrior had leaned far down out of his saddle, his arm was cocked and the blade was rock steady. The speed of the maneuver terrified him. There was no way Quine could step backward quickly enough to save himself. He pulled his eyes up from the blade to the cold blue ones gazing down from above.
The warrior spoke for the first time. "You have questioned my honor." His voice was quiet but easily heard. "You shall withdraw the Challenge or accept the consequences."
Quine glanced down to the blade and decided to accept the reprieve. Let someone else Challenge this one, he had already lost the game. Quine spoke very quietly, hoping his voice wouldn't carry too far through the silent crowd.
"I will withdraw the Challenge and issue Recognition of the princess and her Guardian."
The warrior nodded and straightened up in his saddle returning the steppeknife to its sheath down the center of his back.
"Uh...sir, who shall I announce as the princess' Guardian?"
The warrior looked over his shoulder at the carriage for a moment and then turned back and smiled. Even his eyes lit up. "They call me Kitten."
Quine shook his head in confusion as the procession passed through the gate. If that was a kitten he would hate to meet the cat.
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